Well the last blog seemed to attract very mixed responses with some people feeling I should have expressed more obvious fury. In fact, I’ve been outraged for many years with the role Dominic Cummings has taken in government. But I was interested in coming at the story from a different angle and had been quite haunted by that picture of him running away from Downing Street back in March when the prime-minister had just tested positive. He looked consumed with child-like panic and not at all the cold, ultra-rational, manipulative person we usually connect with his name. Of course, anyone can panic, but anxiety does not fit comfortably within this proud man’s psyche, and for all its careful stage-managing, this lack of psychological integration seemed very obvious in the incoherent story that emerged in the rose garden of Number 10. His refusal to admit or apologise for potentially putting others at risk when, virally-loaded, he took off to Durham, and his failure to see the potential impact of his behaviour on our thinking and collective determination, is telling. There is something perverse about his evident capacity to both acknowledge and deny reality at one and the same time.
But in a democracy we tend to get leaders who reflect the collective traits that are predominant in the population at that point in our history. I know we didn’t vote for Cummings but he was part of the package and it seems he has become so enmeshed with the Prime Minister’s thinking that it’s as if he’s become Johnson’s auxiliary ego. Personally, I was not surprised that this self-defined outsider should think himself entitled to behave differently from the rest of us. And the struggle to rationalise one’s mistakes, deny something one already knows, to ‘turn a blind eye’, is very familiar to me as a psychotherapist. For me, the retrospective amending of his blog and subsequent boasting that he had warned us many months ago of a corona virus pandemic, seemed more deliberately manipulative and chilling. But these character traits of both the Prime Minister and his aide – including such frank dishonesty – have been evident for many years and we elected him/them six months ago with a massive majority.
So maybe we have to look at ourselves and wonder why we have made such men so powerful. Or, put more gently, what is it about our culture at the present time that has allowed men with such character traits to rise to the top? There is evidence from various disciplines that we are collectively more dishonest than we used to be – false news is just the tip of the iceberg. Values such as individualism, consumerism and the idealisation of market forces have created institutions where people are used as a means to an end, as tools and commodities rather than respected citizens, and where ‘gaming’, fabrication, distortion of reality quickly follow. In short, there is evidence to suggest that our institutions are more perverse than they used to be, with ‘turning a blind eye’ a norm within many of them.
Anyone familiar with the Francis Reports about the shocking clinical conditions, the excess deaths and the underlying ruthless and dishonest culture at Mid Staffordshire NHS FoundationTrust, will be in no doubt that such thinking is relevant to our public services as well as private corporations. The Francis Report described a sinister process: forces at work striving actively to prevent acknowledgement of problems. Managers and leaders appeared to have ignored, or even silenced, feedback from staff at all levels that would have alerted them to the problem. Staff tried – more than a third of the 515 safety incident reports submitted by ward staff attributed the problem to inadequate staffing. Consultants found their incident reports downgraded to being minor events without consultation or investigation. A senior manager in the trust even called for a specialist independent investigator to remove any statements in his report suggesting that people had died because of poor care – because it would distress people and bring bad publicity for the trust.
There are parallels between this disturbing piece of NHS history and the way the government is managing the present situation. From the start, they have tried to bluff their way through, minimising the problems and exaggerating their achievements. What makes me particularly furious is not just the sheer number of UK deaths from this pandemic, but the fact that we have had more deaths in relation to our population size than any other country in the world, and the fact that this is not being reflected in the main headlines. There has been a lot of shocked press coverage about the figures from America (still way below us per head of population) but since the official government press conferences stopped showing graphs of international comparisons, there has been very little coverage of just how badly we are doing. This is not the case in the medical press: the British Medical Journal, for example, reflects a truly bleak national picture in relation to the rest of the world and in a damning editorial two weeks ago described the UK government’s response as “too little, too late, too flawed”. This week it calls for a rapid inquiry reporting within months and hopefully before a second wave so that we can put measures in place to mitigate the worst aspects of what has proved to be a deeply dysfunctional system of governance and administration.
So, whether or not Dominic Cummings is sacked, let’s make sure that neither he nor anyone else in this government – full of ministers adept at turning a blind eye – stop us from facing the reality of what’s going on in this ‘world beating’ country of ours.